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Georgia Shakespeare’s “The Odyssey” honors soldiers home from Troy, Iraq and Afghanistan

“Must you have battle in your heart forever?” asks Homer in his epic poem “The Odyssey,” a sentiment that for some of today’s veterans may feel more like a contemporary song lyric than a line composed 3,000 years ago.

That connection, between Odysseus the warrior returning home from the Trojan War and today’s warriors returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, is at the heart of Georgia Shakespeare’s intriguing new adaptation “The Odyssey: The Journey Home.” Adapted and directed by Richard Garner (who’s fresh off directing “A Confederacy of Dunces” at Theatrical Outfit), it allows the audience to draw parallels between the struggles of Odysseus and of veterans of recent wars. The world-premiere engagement runs October 7-31, with special events planned to honor veterans.

As Garner started planning to adapt “The Odyssey” for Georgia Shakes, he wasn’t sure what direction he wanted to take; the long, episodic poem, full of Greek gods, cataclysmic events and fantastic mythical creatures like the giant Cyclops and the six-headed Scylla, is not really a natural for the stage. (Joe Knezevich as Odysseus and Carolyn Cook as Circe. Photos by Bill DeLoach)

“As I was re-reading it,” Garner recalled recently during a break in a day-long rehearsal, “I was also reading the newspaper, and on any given day there would be a story about veterans returning from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and how overwhelmed our Veterans Administration hospitals are. I wondered if there was a way to connect some of the issues a returning soldier feels now to the story. Wouldn’t it be neat if I could find a way to say the Cyclops equals this for a returning soldier, or the Sirens, or Scylla and Charybdis?”

And so began Garner’s own odyssey, to combine ancient Homer and today’s headlines. He soon dropped the idea of weaving the two time periods together. “I wanted to draw this parallel, but I also wanted to just get the story of ‘The Odyssey’ out there,” he explained. So instead of one big tapestry, he decided to use the bookends approach.

“We start with a soldier, and he has a copy of ‘The Odyssey’ in his hand and the story in his head. He sort of goes into this dream story, and he becomes Odysseus fighting his way home. That way we’re not being really literal and hitting each point over the head with a hammer and saying, ‘This equals that.’ We’re saying this is a guy in a state of trying to get home emotionally, and he has to fight off his demons to do that.”

As with many journeys, there were unexpected discoveries along the way for Garner. He learned that during World War II, the government printed small, cheap paperbacks of many books called Armed Services Editions, sized to fit into a uniform pocket. One title was “The Odyssey.” “I said, OK, so a soldier could be in battle and have the story fresh in his brain,” Garner recalled. (The American soldier in Georgia Shakespeare’s version is not identified as being from any specific war, but his uniform is the design currently worn by the U.S. Army.)

Garner went to see a documentary film about PTSD, followed by a panel discussion, and learned that there was already a book covering some of the same ground, but from a psychological rather than a creative starting point. In “Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming,” Jonathan Shay, a VA psychiatrist, argues that Odysseus experiences many of the symptoms of vets with PTSD, from sexual issues to violent outbursts.

The final step was to involve the ArtReach Foundation, an Atlanta non-profit group that was set up to use the arts to help children who have experienced the trauma of war and other forms of violence, but has since expanded its mission to helping veterans as well. Garner told Susan Anderson, ArtReach’s executive director, how he planned to end the adaptation, and she suggested a different ending, which he recognized as being the one he had been looking for.

The cast features Georgia Shakespeare veterans of the thespian variety: Joe Knezevich as Odysseus, Chris Kayser as Zeus, Carolyn Cook as Circe and Neal A. Ghant as Poseidon, among others.

Finally, the Oglethorpe University-based company is reaching out as well as performing. Georgia Shakespeare is giving away 50 free tickets per performance to military personnel with a valid ID, on a first-come, first-served basis.

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